The streets of Beijing

When I’m in a new city, my impulse is to walk. Not take tours, or work through the top tourist spots, but simply to walk the streets, wherever they take me. (Remember Prague?) And when I start walking, I have a tendency to keep going, at a fairly brisk pace, until I can’t walk any more. Often I won’t stop to check out an interesting sight, or even to eat.
So it was today. I thought about visiting the Great Wall, but that would be an all-day commitment, and I wanted to get back and get some work done before Seattle woke up and I had to pack for my flight tomorrow. So around 9am I set off. As yesterday, I started west down Jianguomennei Dajie towards the Forbidden City, but when I reached Chaoyangmen Nandajie I turned south, under the railway tracks. I was looking for the Park of the Ming City Wall, which turned out to be delightful. There were elderly women doing their morning exercises, children everywhere, and ancient men who looked at me as though I was an alien. (I guess I was, in my broad-brimmed kangaroo leather hat and my “There’s no place like” t-shirt.) The oddest thing I came across was a perfectly preserved late Victorian style railway signal box!
At the end of the park, I followed Qianmon Dongdajie towards the south end of Tiananmen Square. I plugged in my headphones and cranked the music up, to discourage the many young men who wanted to be my tour guide. (My choice of music: Banco de Gaia’s “Last Train To Lhasa”. Hmmmm.)
After Tiannmen Square, I decided that I’d seen enough big, ornate stuff: I wanted to see “real Beijing”. (OK, that’s a bit pretentious, but you know what I mean. So I explored the hutongs (narrow alley-like streets) southwest of the Arrow Tower, in Dashilan district. I went down Zhubaoshi Jie until I found the turning into Dashilan Dajie, and followed this into a maze of twisty passages, all different. Dashilan Dajie turned into Dashilan Xijie, then Tieshuxie Jie. And then suddenly I was stuck – and so was everyone else. There was a small excavator digging up the street, and the operator decided to take out the one remaining strip of pavement. A few brave souls scrambled over the debris, ducking to avoid the bucket of the excavator, but I decided to backtrack and work around. I turned south down Shanxi Xiang until I hit Zhushikou Xidajie, which I followed west until I reached Nanxinhua Jie. (One confusing thing about Beijing is that the streets tend to change their names every block or so.) I turned north; I had some vague idea of going all the way up to Bei Hai Park, but I soon abandoned that.
Just as I noticed when I was in Seoul, Beijing merchants tend to cluster. Nanxinhua Jie was full of shops selling musical instruments and trophies – awards, cups, plaques, medals, and so forth. (I probably saw more trophy shops than any other kind in Beijing, except for food and clothing.) I kept going north, until I reached Xichang’an Jie, which is the western continuation of the street I’d started out on. At this point I realized that I wasn’t going to go much further: I’d been walking non-stop for four hours, and my feet knew it. So I reluctantly headed west to the nearest subway station, paid my 2 yuan for a ticket (that’s 29 cents US), and rode the gleaming, streamlined (and packed) train back to Guo Mao station. To the Chinese passengers with whom I shared the train, I apologize for my slovenly appearance: the humidity had picked up mid-morning, and my shirt was terribly sweat-stained.
And now I must deal with my blistered feet, and transfer all the photos to my laptop. I’ll go online and upload this piece in a few minutes. (I have to buy internet access one hour at a time in this hotel.) I probably won’t log in tomorrow morning, because I need to be at the airport by 6am. This time tomorrow, I’ll be in Singapore. (Well, at the airport, anyway.) And tomorrow night I’ll be in Hyderabad.